A library of their own: Grenada’s Mt Zion project

When Grenada’s public library was forced to close, a group of volunteers decided young readers should still have access to books. Erline Andrews learns about the Mt Zion library project

Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

As a child, Ayisha John looked forward to the days her mother took her to the library. Five blocks from where she lived in Hyattsville, Maryland, it was three storeys of wonderment and adventure. “I used to dream of running away and moving into a library,” she says. “That’s how much I love books.”

And like most people passionate about books, John can hardly imagine childhood without access to a library. But that’s the situation facing many children in Grenada, where John — whose parents are Grenadian — moved from the US several years ago.

The public library in the capital, St George’s — a stately Georgian building that also houses the national archives — has been closed for more than two years. Located on the picturesque Carenage waterfront, the building had deteriorated until it was no longer safe to use. Many Grenadians worry now about the condition of the heritage building, constructed in 1720, and the historical documents kept there.

But a bigger concern for some is that the building’s closing is depriving Grenadians, particularly children, of what a library brings. “You know what I keep hearing? Grenadians don’t read anyway,” says John. “That’s sad. Because if there’s no place for them to go get the books, then they’re not going to read. I see a lot of women with romance novels, and that’s cool,” she adds, “but I think that with the library you might go look for romance novels but see something else that catches your eye — and it opens up a whole new world.”

John is part of a community activist group called the Groundation Grenada Action Collective, co-founded by artist and yoga instructor Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe. Earlier this year, Groundation was in the midst of drafting a plan to start a library of their own, and had even begun collecting the books, when writer Oonya Kempadoo, also a resident of Grenada, approached them with an idea: why not collaborate with another group who wanted to start a library too?

Kempadoo, who has Guyanese roots, is a respected author of three novels. She had previously lived in Britain, St Lucia, and Trinidad before moving to Grenada in 1998, where she got involved in promoting the social development of the island in various ways, including volunteering at a home for children and teens, and helping with the reconstruction effort after 2004’s Hurricane Ivan.

“The country has a nice vibe,” Kempadoo says with a laugh, when asked why she moved to Grenada. She adds more seriously, “But also it’s an island that’s more connected to the sea and the rest of the Caribbean than I felt in Trinidad.”

Kempadoo introduced the Groundation members to Clifford John and Cessell Greenidge, founders of the Mt Zion Full Gospel Revival Ministry, which holds services in the Arnold John Building in St George’s. As John and Greenidge visited congregants’ homes following the closing of the public library, they too became increasingly disturbed. “There was a lot of fall-back in the children,” Clifford John says. “They were not reading or understanding things properly.”

He and Greenidge discussed giving children an alternative. They found an enthusiastic partner in Kempadoo. With her help, the Mt Zion library project blossomed to include organisations and individual donors big and small in Grenada, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world, among them the Massachusetts-based Hands Across the Sea, which donates books to programmes in the eastern Caribbean to help promote literacy. Groundation also agreed to channel some of their resources and efforts to the Mt Zion project. The partners spread the word, and raised US$1,200 in donations online.

In September 2013, the Mt Zion library opened on the second floor of the Arnold John Building. Only the children’s section is running so far, just four days a week. Plans were for the adult section of the library to follow a few months later.

Ayisha John’s time spent in libraries taught her how to catalogue books and organise a lending system, a skill she taught a handful of other volunteers. Kerrisha Nelson, a Mt Zion congregant and graphic artist, manages the library. She also maintains a blog that documents the library’s progress, with photos and commentary.

The photos run from a bare room with dull, peeling paint and holes in the floor last May, to smiling little girls in spotless school uniforms holding books in October. Many more books filled a shelf behind them, which was built against a bright yellow wall.

Nelson admits the responsibility she bears is sometimes hard to shoulder — volunteer participation has so far not met expectations. Friday, which has become storytelling day, is popular, but so far library traffic is thin. Five children a day is typical, says Nelson. The library, which has three hundred books, only has nine members. But experiences like a recent one with a new five-year-old member remind her of why it’s worth it. “She was all excited,” says Nelson. “Her grandmother filled out the form for her, and she really wanted to read.”